James Waltham, 1850s

“…driving cattle through London’s streets…”

James Waltham moved animals through London on their way to becoming butchers’ meat.

Show transcript

Do you hear that? Listen carefully…you hear it? … almost complete silence! That’s a big change since I worked here, when you’d have six thousand frantic bullocks and thirty five thousand witless sheep all at top volume. And the dogs barking…and the sellers shouting…and the buyers haggling, the officials complaining, and gawping kids and the hawkers selling trinkets and rubbish.

I don’t miss the 1850s, I can tell you.

James Waltham’s my name – or just Jim – Licensed London Drover number 949 …It was my job to herd all those thousands of animals into the Cattle Market on market days.

Why, you ask me…Think about it – London before the 1850s – everyone wants to eat meat… but … no re-frig-er-ation! So if you wanted fresh meat in London’s shops, that means it has to arrive in London ‘on the hoof’ so to speak – alive.

Every month the country drovers walked tens of thousands of sheep and cattle into London from all over the country – they spent weeks on the road sometimes – but they stopped in the fields outside the city. Getting the beasts from there to the livestock market through the city streets in the middle of the night was a job for us London Drovers, not country drovers from Scotland who didn’t know the city.

Mr. and Mrs Lah-de-dah hated us for that. We herded noisy animals past their houses when they were trying to sleep, and if they were stupid enough to try strolling near Smithfield on a Monday or Friday morning they were quite likely to meet a herd of cattle or a flock of sheep coming the other way, and we didn’t stop for anyone.

All I had was a dog and a stick, and you really didn’t want to get to the market late, or you’d be hanging around for hours before you could jam your animals into a space, by which time they were near crazy with fear or thirst. We city drovers were called ‘cruel’ and ‘vicious’ and people said we weren’t much better than beasts ourselves. Pah! It wasn’t our fault, it was Smithfield.

That changed when the market was moved here to the Metropolitan Cattle Market. Here there was space, and water for the beasts, and shelters for them to lie down in, and four pubs for the drovers to have a bit of a breather. When you saw the top of this Clock Tower appearing over the roof tops, you knew your job was nearly done and drover and beast would have the chance of a rest. Yes the animal were all slaughtered in the end, but at least life was a bit kinder to them.

It didn’t last for long, mind you. We were soon edged out by the railways…refrigeration really did for us drovers…But it’s all gone now, and this park, this is something else. If it wasn’t for the Clock Tower and the pubs on the corner I’d never recognise this place as the Cattle Market.